Writing The Late Walter Benjamin: an author perspective

By | April 30, 2012

This week we publish The Late Walter Benjamin, a documentary novel that creatively explores the life and thought of Walter Benjamin in the political context of a post-War London estate. In this blog post, our author John Schad looks back on his personal engagement with Walter Benjamin and how it influenced and inspired the book.

'You may, just possibly, be wondering what kind of book this is. Well, it may, I suppose, be most simply described as a kind of novel, in that it has a narrative of sorts and much of the action is fictional. To be more precise, though, it is a documentary novel in that, time and again, the narrative is being generated or informed by scraps of actual history – mostly newspaper clippings and personal testimonies. As you will see, these documentary fragments appear primarily as inserts within the narrative.

So, a documentary or ‘found’ novel, you might say – but I think it is still more a readerly novel, in that the action is driven not only by all these documentary texts but also by a central character who, whenever he speaks, only ever uses words gleaned verbatim from the voluminous writings of the German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940). In this sense, my novel is one long act of reading – in particular of reading or rereading the work and the life of Benjamin. The result, I hope, is that we see Benjamin not only askew but also afresh and in a manner that takes us a little closer to what his life and work might have meant or might yet come to mean.

This hope, of course, is no more or less than the kind of hope we find at the centre of much literary criticism, and The Late Walter Benjamin is, indeed, a kind of literary criticism; it is, though, criticism that is attempting to be itself literary – to be, if you will, a truly literary criticism. To put it another way, what follows is an act of reading or thinking that chooses to draw not upon the devices of argumentation that characterize most academic criticism, but instead upon the devices or strategies of literature, namely, plot, character, dialogue and so forth. We might call this, for want of better words, a ‘critical-creative’ work, a species of writing.

How did this book come about? Well, it began, I think, with a desire to consider some very particular words of Benjamin’s – words written just months before he committed suicide in 1940. These words are ‘every second [is]. . . the strait gate though which the Messiah might enter’ and, as I began to think about them, I realized that the reason I found them so compelling is that, as a boy, I grew up within a church where talk of the Second Coming was sufficiently commonplace for the idea to play on my imagination. The result was that, as a boy, if I ever heard thunder at night, I felt drawn to the window to see if this was the moment in which Christ would return. In this sense, for my child-self, every second was indeed the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.

This, then, is why I returned to the time of my childhood in the book that follows; but, as I did so, a second reason emerged, and this was the place in which I spent my childhood – a post-war council estate near London. For the more I thought about it, the more I felt that the estate was somehow pertinent to Benjamin’s religious thinking, in particular the political and tragic-comic aspects of that thinking. I should explain that I lived on the estate from 1965, aged 4, until 1982. We moved there from Swindon, following my father, who chose to go there to live and work as an evangelical minister of religion. What makes the estate so interesting vis- á -vis Walter Benjamin is that it sprang into existence, out of nothing as it were, in 1948 when 14,000 bombed-out Londoners were moved there.

Once there, they found that they were living in a place, or no place, which the local press soon called ‘a soulless wilderness’ and likened to a ‘Displaced Persons ’ Camp.’ In a sense, then, I had on my hands the fact, or image, of a people in unbearable exile, even hell – an image of disaster that seemed to chime with the tragic notes within Benjamin’s theology. At the same time, however, as my research developed, I was struck by the intense political self-consciousness of the estate that seemed to reflect the fact that it was planned and built in a spirit not only of national emergency but also of social utopianism – the estate was also known as the ‘Promised Land’ or ‘Cockney Utopia.’

What follows is an attempt to freeze-frame this particular moment and, in doing so, to unleash, I hope, something of its politico-theological force. Important in this connection will, I think, be Benjamin’s intense and peculiar engagement with a politicized Jewish theology, an engagement that issued, at the very end of his life, in what he called a ‘weak Messianic force.’ This was central to his complex, semi-mystical conviction that ‘we’ ourselves (an undefined revolutionary class or generation) should turn out to be, or have been, the Messiah that tarries, or indeed that might just ‘enter’ at ‘every second.’ Thus, the Late Walter Benjamin is an attempt to put this wild and ironic hope to the test of history, in particular the dangerous and largely unwritten history of the exiled working-class London that was post-war Oxhey.

To do this, very early on, I allow the action to slip from the mid 1960s of my childhood to the earliest days of the estate. To make this possible, I invent two stray and rather odd men, called Painter and Porlock, who seem to remember or indeed to live in the immediate post-war birth-moment of the estate. Painter seems to be a genuine working-class Londoner, whereas Porlock is probably not – he certainly does not speak like one, although he has somehow drifted onto the estate and has grown to convince himself that he belongs there.

The character that is a version of my 8-year-old self (the novel, in this sense, begins around 1968) is led into the world of Painter and Porlock after encountering an old man who seems to live with them. This old man says or thinks he is Walter Benjamin – or at last ‘O. E. Tal,’ one of several pseudonyms that Benjamin used. This figure, Mr Tal, is the character who only ever uses words actually written by Benjamin; each time he speaks is, then, a quotation, each one being referenced at the end of the book. Mr Tal, I should add, appears oblivious to the fact that the man with whom he is confused (Benjamin) has been dead for almost 30 years.'

You can find out more about The Late Walter Benjamin on our website. Keep your eyes peeled on our blog this week as we will be posting up an exclusive digital preview of the first chapter, author interview and guest post, as well as giving away a free copy on Friday!

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